What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of "anticancer drugs" to treat cancer. Chemotherapy is systemic therapy, which means that the drugs flow through the bloodstream to nearly every part of the body to kill cancer cells wherever they may be. Because some anticancer drugs work better together than alone, chemotherapy may consist of more than one drug. This approach is called combination chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy can be used to:
  • Destroy cancer cells
  • Stop cancer cells from spreading
  • Slow the growth of cancer cells

Chemotherapy can be given alone or with other treatments. It can help other treatments work better. For example, you may get chemotherapy before or after surgery or radiation therapy; or you may get chemotherapy before a peripheral blood stem cell transplant.

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to shrink tumors and kill cancer cells. X-rays, gamma rays, and charged particles are types of radiation used for cancer treatment.

The radiation may be delivered by a machine outside the body, or it may come from radioactive material placed in the body near cancer cells, also called brachytherapy.

Systemic radiation therapy uses radioactive substances, such as radioactive iodine, that travel in the blood to kill cancer cells.

About half of all cancer patients receive some type of radiation therapy sometime during the course of their treatment.

How does radiation therapy kill cancer cells?

Radiation therapy kills cancer cells by damaging their DNA, the molecules inside cells that carry genetic information and pass it from one generation to the next. Radiation therapy can either damage DNA directly or create charged particles, free radicals,within the cells that can in turn damage the DNA.

Cancer cells whose DNA is damaged beyond repair stop dividing or die. When the damaged cells die, they are broken down and eliminated by the body’s natural processes. 

How is radiation therapy planned for an individual patient?

A radiation oncologist develops a patient’s treatment plan through a process called treatment planning, which begins with simulation. During simulation, detailed imaging scans show the location of a patient’s tumor and the normal areas around it. These scans are usually computed tomography (CT) scans, but they can also include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and ultrasound scans.

For more information visit www.cancer.gov, and schedule an appointment with Dr. Ball at Cane River Surgery Center in Natchitoches, Louisiana.